‘Joseph Haydn, Father of the Symphony’ has long been one of those
reach-me-down and faintly patronising labels beloved of second-rate
music teachers. When applied instead to the string quartet it
has much more force, for it is fair to say that the quartet as
a medium barely existed before Haydn began to write for it. Furthermore,
the quartets range throughout his composing career, from the op.1
works of his twenties, to those onwards from op.76, which belong
to the last decade of his life.
The idea of combining two violins,
viola and cello is a true product of the Viennese classical
era. It grew, in all probability, out of the Baroque ‘trio sonata’,
in itself a confusing name, for it in fact consisted of four
players – typically two violins, keyboard and cello continuo.
As the practice of continuo became less prevalent through the
second half of the 18th century, a natural solution
was to include a further instrument to complete the harmonies
and enrich the texture; hence the introduction of the viola.
Much of this music was written
when Haydn was Vice-Kapellmeister, and then Kapellmeister, in
the household of his patron, Prince Esterházy. Most of the year
would be spent at Eisenstadt, the prince’s country residence
in Hungary, far away from the heady distractions of Vienna.
Haydn later claimed that this isolation forced him to become
original, in order to provide constantly fresh entertainment
for the intensely musical prince. The composer was undoubtedly
highly appreciated, even prized, by his employer, who nonetheless
expected the loftiest standards of excellence from him, day
in, day out.
So it is that in every one of
the quartets in this splendid collection, there is the feeling
of setting out on an entirely fresh journey. And, as they travel,
the four companions engage in the most civilised conversations,
laced with poetry, imagination and humour. It is one of the
great miracles of musical history, comparable only, perhaps,
with the cantatas of J.S. Bach, that Haydn was able to maintain
such a sublime level of inspiration in such circumstances.
Naxos give us the quartets,
recorded over a period of seven years or so - except for the
‘Cassations’ of CD4 - in a handsome and substantial box, with
a plump booklet of notes. The latter however is, though ample,
not quite as generous as it looks, as it contains details
pertaining not only to the quartets, but to the complete sets
of the symphonies, concertos and sonatas, all now available
on Naxos. The performers throughout are the excellent Kodály
Quartet - though the violist (János Fejérvári) and cellist (György
Éder) are changed for CDs 4 and 5, which were recorded some
time after the others.
Having a single ‘resident’ ensemble
throughout this huge undertaking is, on the whole, a very positive
factor. There is a satisfying consistency of musical style and
approach, and a comparable consistency of sound, though this
is naturally affected by the acoustic qualities of the various
venues. The Kodály are in many ways an ideal ensemble for this
project; they lack mannerisms or affectation, relying on a fairly
literal approach whereby the music’s innate wit and intelligence
can speak for itself. As the cycle progresses, the music grows
technically and emotionally more mature, which is mirrored in
the greater intensity of the performances.
A great string quartet must
be made up of four equal partners, and you could be forgiven
for feeling that the lower three players in the Kodály lack
sufficient musical personality. The leader, Attila Falvay, is
so clearly the source of much of the energy and imagination,
and I could sometimes wish for a greater degree of assertiveness
from the other three. When the cellist, for example, has an
identifiable solo, as at the start of op.20 no.2 (CD 10, track
5), he projects it superbly; at other times, I felt the need
of a more strongly characterised approach. The imitative passage
near the beginning of op.50 no.4 (CD 15, track 5) is a case
in point. However, as the cycle progresses, the textures become
more complex, with greater demands on all four instruments,
and one becomes aware of the ever-increasing contributions made
by the lower three players.
There are altogether seventy-seven
works on the twenty-five CDs of this set, and a word of explanation
about some of the contents is needed. Firstly, CD4; this consists
of two quartets – op.2 nos. 3 and 5 – which are in fact arrangements
of cassations for strings and horns, ‘cassation’ being a mid-18th
century term similar to ‘divertimento’ or ‘serenade’. Then come
the six quartets that make up op.3, completing CD4 and filling
CD5, and now generally accepted to be spurious. They are thought
to be by one Romanus Hoffstetter, a Bavarian monk and composer,
and a self-confessed admirer of Haydn. It’s not hard to sense
a lowering of the musical standards in these works, despite
their workmanlike qualities; the only disappointing thing is
that the charming Serenade of op.3 no.5, long known in its orchestral
version as the ‘Haydn Serenade’ is almost certainly not by Haydn
The final CD contains, firstly,
the string quartet version of the ‘Seven Last Words of Jesus
Christ’, which Haydn made a few days after the first performance
of the full orchestral version of these seven wonderful Adagios
and their introduction and postlude. The disc is completed
by the two existing movements of the quartet op.103, written
when Haydn was very frail and nearing his death.
To go through every single item
on every single disc would be far too lengthy – and probably
mind-numbingly boring too! So let me pass on some thoughts about
various aspects of the quartets as I listened to them. It’s
interesting to note that the early quartets of opp.1 and 2 are
mostly in five movements, consisting of an opening Allegro,
a central slow movement framed by two minuets, and a quick
finale. Once we get past the cassations and the spurious op.3,
we find Haydn in op.9 of 1768 - 1770 settling permanently on
the four-movement pattern that also characterises the symphonies.
For many years, he favoured placing the minuet second, prior
to the slow movement. But from op.50 onwards (the ‘Prussian’
quartets of 1787), he preferred positioning the slow movement
second, an order he retained in all but a few of the later works.
Haydn normally cast his opening
movements in sonata form - though there are exceptions, such
as the variations of op.17 no.5 - and he handles the structure
with a sureness of touch imbued, from the earliest works, with
constant ingenuity. Many of these movements are best described
as ‘monothematic’, that is to say dominated by one theme, rather
than capitalising on contrast between first and second ‘subjects’.
A good example of this is the opening movement of op.20 no.4
(track 1 on CD11), the fourth of the ‘Sun’ Quartets. The Kodálys,
supported by excellent recorded balance between the instruments,
bring out superbly the contrast between the ubiquitous four-note
idea (first heard at the outset) and the more florid passages
that seem to flee from its pursuing footsteps. Plenty of contrast,
but one central idea.
These ‘Sun’ Quartets of 1772
(CDs 10 – 11) are in many ways a point in his output where Haydn,
now entering his forties, seems to show a new mastery, and an
ever-increasing understanding of the possibilities of the quartet
medium. Op.20 no.2 in C begins with its main theme, an expressive
and lyrical idea, in the high register of the cello, with the
viola, and even the second violin, underneath. This is rendered
beautifully by the Kodálys, with such rich tone that you might
be forgiven for thinking that the group had been transformed
into a cello quartet!
The so-called ‘Russian’ Quartets
of op.33 take their name from the presence at their first performance
in Vienna of the Russian Grand Duke Paul - later Tsar Paul II
- and his wife. The most remarkable of them is possibly no.1
in B minor, where the music takes many bars to establish its
key, and indeed sounds as if it might belong in D major until
twenty or so bars in. Here, I was struck by the unerring choice
of tempo by these performers. This is by no means
a minor issue, for getting the right speed is always the key
to a successful revelation of a movement’s character. Now and
again, I might feel that the slow movements could do with slightly
more forward movement, or that one or two of the very quick
movements – take op.20 no.6 (CD11 track 9) - could do with more
‘fizz’; but this is quite rare, and the Kodálys mostly get their
tempi ‘spot on’.
What’s to be said about the
nick-names that begin to occur thick and fast from op.33 onwards?
Most are inoffensive enough, but some are irritatingly arch,
such as the ‘How Do You Do?’ soubriquet for op.33 no.5 (supposedly
based on the rhythm of the main theme). Others are mystifying,
such as ‘Ein Traum’ (‘A Dream’) – why? Others again are just
plain daft, such as op.33 no.2, ‘The Joke’ – as if this is the
only Haydn quartet with a ‘joke’ in it! And how
demeaning to refer to op.33 no 3 as ‘The Bird’ on account of
its high melody with grace notes in the violin at the start,
for this draws attention away from the tense accompanying quavers,
with their abrupt silences and key changes, that surely inspired
Beethoven when he came to write the ‘Waldstein’ Sonata.
Here and there in the set one
encounters some less successful interpretations. The players
sound as if they were in a rather ‘flat’ mood when it came to
recording op.50 no.2 of the ‘Prussian’ Quartets (CD14). All
four movements suffer from plodding tempi, especially the first,
which, though marked Vivace, seems devoid of the necessary
liveliness. Fortunately, such low-points are few and far between,
and even here, the playing is affectionate and meticulous.
All are back on top form for
the remaining Prussian Quartets on CD15, with a particularly
scintillating performance of the ‘Frog’ Quartet, op.50 no.6.
The name (see above!) comes from the croaking bariolage
- repeating the same note on different strings - in the finale.
The work has plenty of other delights, not least the Trio section
in the Minuet, (track 11), with its sudden silences and harmonic
red-herrings. Keep an ear open for these trios, because it seems
to be the point in the format where Haydn often does the quirkiest
things, and executes some of his best musical japes.
CDs 16 to 19 contain the twelve
quartets dedicated to the violinist Johann Tost. These come
in two sets of six, assigned respectively to opp.54 and 55 (three
each) and op.64 (six). A couple of shocks lay in wait for me
at the start of CD16; firstly, expecting op.54 no.1 in G major
as printed, I jumped at a loud chord of C major! It transpires
that Naxos simply have nos. 1 and 2 the wrong way round on the
disc, which, though a mild nuisance, is hardly a big problem:
I have not yet verified whether this is unique to my review
copy. What was more startling was the change of acoustic,
for, while almost all of the quartets up to this point have
been recorded in the Unitarian Church in Budapest, we now move
to the Hungaroton Studios. The ear soon adjusts, but I have
to say I found the warm church acoustic far more to my taste
than the slightly ‘garish’ studio sound, which is particularly
unkind to the strings in the forte attacks at, for example
at the beginning of op.54 no.2, where the chords sound somewhat
The musicians and engineers
seem to have agreed with this, because CD 17, though recorded
in the same venue, has vastly improved sound, achieved – as
far as I could tell – by moving the microphones a little further
away from the players, thus providing greater ambience. Very
welcome, though it does unfortunately emphasise CD16 as one
of the least satisfactory discs, particularly when one also
takes into account the error in running order.
Passing through op.63 in B flat,
with its witty first movement and harmonically inventive finale
–moments of real magic – one comes to one of the supreme masterpieces,
op.64 no 5, known as ‘The Lark’ because of the blithe melody
in the first violin near the beginning of the Allegro moderato
(CD 19 track 5). Listening to this, I was struck once again
by the strong musical personality of the leader of the Kodály
Quartet, Attila Falvay. He is so influential in projecting the
character of each movement, which is as it should be. Haydn
moved a long way, through his career, towards greater equality
between the four parts of the quartet; but the first violin
still has the lion’s share of the musical interest. In the ‘Lark’,
so many of Falvay’s qualities are on display; his bright, focused
tone in the very high register (as at the start of track 5),
the grace with which he projects an expressive cantabile line
(as in the beautiful Adagio cantabile, track 6), or the
energy and precision of his bowing (as in the breathless moto
perpetuo finale, track 8).
But if it’s whirlwind finales
you’re after, then I have to say that the ‘Lark’ is trumped
by the stunning final movement of op.74 no.1, the fourth of
the six ‘Apponyi’ Quartets of 1793, dedicated to Count Anton
Georg of that name (CD 21 track 4). All four players buzz frenetically,
the swaying syncopations put me in mind of the Presto
of Mozart’s ‘Prague’ Symphony, and the rustic codetta theme
(around 1:15) looks forward to the finale of Haydn’s last symphony,
no.104 in D.
As we reach the later quartets,
there is so much to wonder at, both in the content of the music
and the quality of the performances. There is a new emotional
depth to be heard in the Adagio sostenuto of op.76 no.1,
the first of the quartets dedicated to Count Erdödy (CD 22),
and once more, the Kodálys are alert to this, responding with
a hushed intensity. This great work concludes with an extraordinary
Allegro ma non troppo, which seems not to know if it’s
in G minor or G major, before firmly plumping for the latter.
I love the ‘Sunrise’ Quartet’s first movement (CD23 track 1)
that alternates between near-static calm and frantic activity,
or the finale’s ‘runaway train’ coda (track 4, 3:20 to the end).
Op.76 no.5 has an extraordinary trio at its heart, with subterranean
grumbling from the cello, and a finale with one of Haydn’s best
jokes – a main theme that sounds for all the world like the
end of the piece!
CD 24 contains just the two
‘Lobkowitz’ Quartets of op.77. The second of these, Haydn’s
final complete work in this genre, has an amazing passage in
its first movement. Haydn seizes on a five-note figure, which
works its way down to the bottom of the cello’s range, from
where it eventually leads back to the recapitulation (track
5, 4:28 to 5:50). Though only a brief moment in the work, it
foreshadows exactly how Beethoven liked to work his material,
as well as the sense of drama he generated in his developments.
Of course, there are many instances of Beethovenian ‘pre-echoes’
before this in the quartets; but here in this final one, it
seems powerfully appropriate - even though Haydn and the young
Beethoven didn’t ‘hit it off’.
The final CD contains two items
that can be considered as ‘extras’, but which are nonetheless
good to have. The ‘Seven Last Words’ consists of seven solemn
adagios framed by a majestic introduction and a final Presto
depicting the earthquake following Christ’s death on the cross.
Anything but easy listening, naturally; but it remains impressive
to observe how Haydn skilfully introduces variety by all the
means at his disposal – texture, rhythm, key – in order to maintain
interest. The two movements of op.103 in D minor – Andante
and Minuet and Trio - don’t add up to much without the outer
movements, but are an interesting curiosity.
If you want to possess the complete
Haydn quartets on disc, there are two basic alternatives; you
can either build them up from individual issues, which would
certainly take lots of time and intensive research, or you can
buy one of the two complete surveys currently extant, the present
one on Naxos or that by the Angeles Quartet on Philips. I have
not had access to the latter, though I have heard some of the
CDs, which I found musically satisfying and beautifully engineered.
The Naxos collection will hit the pocket a lot less hard, and
I have to say that, with the fairly mild reservations about
playing quality and acoustics I have expressed above, it is
a fine achievement by the Kodály Quartet and the Naxos team.
It has been quite a marathon
listening my way through this set; but it has been deeply enjoyable
too, and has left with me with the realisation that this is
the most companionable of music by the most humble and at the
same time one of the most brilliantly inventive of great composers.